By Professor Martin Parker
Confronted by today’s problems, it’s easy to imagine there’s nothing we can do to help. Climate change, gigantic global and local inequalities, the rise of a politics that positions the ‘people’ against the ‘elite’. It’s all too much to deal with, and not surprising that many people turn away in despair. Standing in front of a tsunami, what is the point of gluing yourself to some railings? We can see the problems, but they’re too big to deal with in our everyday lives.
Yet the amazing thing about this city and region is just how many people are already organising new ways to think about the problems that face us. These are people already trying to build a low carbon and high inclusion economy. In just about every area you might think of – whether its food, transport, energy, media or housing – new businesses are growing which are turning standard economic assumptions on their head.
The economy is the answer
For the last fifty years we’ve been collectively persuaded that all businesses need to have leaders who are motivated by huge salaries. Or that efficiency just means saving money by making people work harder for less money, and that shareholders deserve super-normal returns on their investments. Or even that it’s OK if a business arranges its affairs so that it doesn’t pay tax, or it creates waste and social problems and then lets the rest of us clear it up.
But all these assumptions are wrong. Climate change is caused when businesses emit carbon to make products or sell things that require us to emit carbon to use them. Inequalities are caused by concentrations of wealth within and between nations which in turn have been caused by past and present businesses.
Our political tribalism reflects the problems of de-industrialising parts of the UK in places where local well-paying industries are long gone, and replaced by McJobs, precarious employment and Amazon warehouses. Whichever way you run the argument, if we want to face the tsunami, we need to have a different way of doing business – a new economy.
That’s why we have started the Inclusive Economy Initiative at the University of Bristol. It involves a team of social scientists from various disciplines who are interested in working with local alternative businesses to grow the new economy we all need. We’re already talking to co-ops, green companies and organisations like Bristol 24/7’s Better Business network.
What can we do?
There are three things we need to do to make a new future. One is to decarbonise all aspects of business practice, from cars to burgers, and do it as rapidly as possible. The second is to make sure these changes produce economies which are inclusive – they should reward everyone who lives in Bristol, not just those from the leafy north and west.
Finally, we think it’s really important that all workers have more control over their workplaces, and ideally they should have meaningful ownership too. A practical experience of democracy at work will help us restore a sense of democracy in our city and country.
This would produce an economy which doesn’t damage the planet, doesn’t discriminate against people on the basis of gender or skin colour, and which gives workers a sense of shaping the places that they work. These might seem like utopian ideas, but unless we make them real, we will all end up the poorer.
Contact the University of Bristol’s Inclusive Economy Initiative on firstname.lastname@example.org.